HAYLEY MILLS goes back in time to help out staff at Pontypool Museum.
I WAS excited to discover the secrets of Pontypool Museum and I was amazed to find an army of volunteers giving their time to bring the history of Torfaen to life.
Pontypool Museum is set in the Georgian stable block of Pontypool Park House. The former home of the Hanbury Family and the beautiful surrounding are the perfect environment to bring history alive.
The museum is managed by Torfaen Museum Trust, which has been safeguarding and collecting art, historical objects and cultural artefacts on behalf of the public since 1978.
Due to budget cuts, the museum staff and volunteers are busy fundraising to save it from closure.
As I arrived, I met a volunteer of three years, Jeff Adams who is a retired civil engineer.
He keeps the outside areas around the museum, including its court yard, clean and tidy for visitors, as well as undertaking the gardening.
I helped him to water the plants, which the volunteers are selling to the public to raise money for the museum.
Through the entrance, I met staff member of 14 years, Kath Lapping who looks after the reception and the gift shop.
I helped her to register the volunteers as they arrived, so that a record is kept of who is in the building in case of a fire.
Volunteers Sheila Cashmore and Ruth Agg reported for duty and were keen to show me their activity for the day.
I joined them in the museum’s office, where the pair were spending their time ringing companies in Torfaen to ask if they would like to become corporate sponsors of the museum.
The fundraising officer at the museum, Sassy Hicks explained that the response from the public joining up as members and giving donations has been fantastic, but unfortunately it has not had such a big response from businesses.
Next, Sassy led me around the rest of the museum that was like a rabbit warren. Around every corner is a new discovery.
There are over 15,000 items on view and collections range from prehistoric objects and medieval treasure troves, to industrial revolution collections, Pontypool Rugby Club memorabilia and fine art.
They have seasonal exhibits, exclusive art events, and a research studies library.
The Oriel Barker Gallery is fast building a reputation for its fine art exhibitions, sculptural and ceramic displays.
Every year, 35,000 visitors enjoy the unique collections and there is always something of interest on display.
The museum is a great day for the whole family and there is a children’s drawing desk for them to sketch what they have seen or have been inspired to draw.
My next stop was the archiving library which is kept running by Marion Williams, a volunteer of 10 years, Janet McAllister, a volunteer of five years, and Roger Purbrick, a volunteer of three years.
The library is a busy hive of activity as the volunteers work to find the answers to public questions about their own relatives’ history and the borough.
The library is made up of boxes and boxes of photographs from around Torfaen that the volunteers are busy digitising by scanning them in to a computer to make them more publicly accessible.
But the task is not as simple as it could be, due to a lack of working IT equipment and the volunteers have their hearts set on obtaining grants later in the year so that they can purchase computers and have a scanner in the library.
I was intrigued to be shown a copy of The Free Press from 1873 and wearing special protective gloves, I was able to flick through the yellowed pages.
It was sad to see the keepers of Torfaen’s history struggling to finance such an important task of making the documents more freely open to the public.
Many of the maps, photographs and letters in the museum are the only copy, and if the volunteers are not able to make copies, then they could be lost forever.
If the museum closes, then they could be stuck in boxes and never seen by future generations.
After leaving the library, I tried my hand at a more domestic task.
Donning the museum vacuum on my back, looking like a ghost buster, I was tasked with housekeeping.
After a few minutes of carefully cleaning the displays, I realised an army of volunteers are required to keep the venue looking spick and span.
Dusting, polishing, wiping... it must be a never ending cycle.
Plus these were no ordinary items, but ones that must be handled carefully. These were objects from the Victorian times to the 1930s, so not easily replaceable.
There is a permanent collection that highlights the unique history of the borough from Llantarnam in the south to Blaenavon in the north.
There are many Japanning items in the museum, as the Japanning industry was one of Pontypool’s most outstanding 18th-century achievements and many famous painters started their careers by working with local Japanware manufacturers.
There is also the British Nylon Spinners collection, which was one of Torfaen’s biggest employers and known globally as the producer of innovative yarns, that includes paintings, documents, photographs and other rare objects from its heyday, 1948 to 2003.
While the Oriel Barker Gallery is the biggest art gallery in Torfaen with a collection of local fine art, textiles, sculpture and crafts. There are seasonal events and exhibitions from local artists, plus you can view 18th century paintings by Thomas and Benjamin Barker and other artworks held by Torfaen Museum Trust.
After working up a sweat, I thought a cup of tea would be nice, and what a better way to relax than a trip to the vintage tea rooms.
Homemade cakes, sandwiches and a selection of fine teas are the perfect refreshment after a trip around the museum plus the tearooms host contemporary art shows.
I opted to enjoy my cuppa in the beautiful courtyard.
With the sun shining down on me, I could see why people fell in love with the venue and would want to keep the place running on a day to day basis and fight to keep it open for generations to come.
To find out more about volunteering opportunities, how to make a donation or to sign up as a member, contact Pontypool Museum on 01495 752036.